Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019; In Committee
I table a supplementary explanatory memorandum relating to the government amendments to be moved to this bill, and I seek leave to move government amendments (2), (3), (4), (5), (7) and (8) together.
(2) Schedule 1, items 7 to 13, page 4 (line 18) to page 6 (line 10), omit the items, substitute:
7 Section 6OB
Repeal the section, substitute:
6OB Power to hold private sessions
Who may hold a private session
(1) If a Royal Commission is constituted by 2 or more members, the following members may hold a private session for the Commission to obtain information in relation to matters into which the Commission is inquiring:
(a) the Chair of the Commission;
(b) a member who is authorised in writing by the Chair of the Commission.
(2) If a Royal Commission is constituted by a sole Commissioner, the sole Commissioner may hold a private session for the Commission to obtain information in relation to matters into which the Commission is inquiring.
Number of members who may hold a private session
(3) A private session held under subsection (1) may be held only by one or 2 members.
Conduct of a private session
(4) If a private session is held for a Royal Commission under subsection (1), any member of the Commission holding the private session may (subject to the Letters Patent establishing the Commission and Division 3) determine any matters relating to the conduct of the private session, having regard to any directions given by the Chair of the Commission.
(5) If a private session is held for a Royal Commission under subsection (2), the sole Commissioner holding the private session may (subject to the Letters Patent establishing the Commission and Division 3) determine any matters relating to the conduct of the private session.
(3) Schedule 1, item 16, page 6 (line 24), omit "person", substitute "member".
(4) Schedule 1, item 16, page 7 (line 1), omit "person", substitute "member".
(5) Schedule 1, item 21, page 7 (lines 16 to 18), omit the item, substitute:
21 Paragraph 6OC(6 ) ( a)
Omit "of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission".
(7) Schedule 1, item 27, page 8 (lines 11 to 13), omit the item, substitute:
27 Section 6OG
Omit "of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission".
(8) Schedule 1, item 42, page 12 (line 2), omit "6OF,".
We also oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:
[who may hold private sessions]
(6) Schedule 1, items 24 and 25, page 7 (line 29) to page 8 (line 7), TO BE OPPOSED.
I was reading from the wrong area on the bill, so I do apologise to the Senate. The bill passed in the other place made provisions for the chair or sole commissioner to authorise assistant commissioners to hold private sessions. The bill placed limits on the circumstances in which an assistant commissioner could be authorised to hold a private session. Only appropriately qualified and senior staff of the commission could be authorised as assistant commissioners. The bill made a presumption that a private session must be held by a commissioner unless the chair or sole commissioner considered that there are circumstances that justified assistant commissioners holding private sessions. This provision was intended to give more flexibility to a commission. It was not envisaged that the power would be necessary for multi-panel inquiries with many commissioners. It may have been useful to a royal commission, with only one or two commissioners, to hold more private sessions. However, the government has listened to stakeholders and determined that only royal commissioners should be empowered to hold private sessions.
It is important that individuals who may share highly sensitive and personal information in a private session feel confident in the process. That is why the government has circulated amendments to remove the provisions relating to assistant commissioners. This approach is consistent with the private session regime adopted by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The effect of the amendments is that only a sole commissioner, the chair of a multi-member commission or a commissioner authorised by the chair is empowered to hold private sessions.
Labor is pleased to support this amendment. The amendment would remove the ability of a royal commissioner to delegate to a senior staff member the power to receive evidence in a private session. This amendment addresses a concern that was raised with Labor by Senator Steele-John and disability advocates in relation to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability—concerns that we then raised with the government.
While there may be circumstances where it is appropriate for a senior staff member with particular skills to receive evidence in a private session in the context of some future royal commissions, Labor agrees that it would not be appropriate in the context of the disability royal commission. Labor recognises that survivors of abuse should have the opportunity to have their stories heard by a commissioner and not by a senior staff member, however qualified that person may be. While there was no suggestion that the chair of the disability royal commission would in fact delegate to senior staff members the power to hold private sessions, the existence of such a power caused understandable anxiety for some in the disability community. We thank Senator Steele-John and disability advocates for raising their concerns with Labor on this issue. We also thank the government for working with Labor to positively and constructively respond to those concerns by moving this amendment.
I would like to thank the crossbench and the major parties for working with disability organisations and the Greens to progress these amendments. It is right to say that, when the bill in its original form was presented to the community, there were concerns about the potential impacts on victims and the creation of a three-tiered royal commission process. These amendments effectively address those concerns. I would also like to put on the record our acknowledgement that there will be a large amount of work for this royal commission to do in terms of hearing the stories of survivors and organisations. If we take the institutional responses royal commission as a template, over the period of its life, that royal commission heard from 8,100 individuals. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this royal commission will hear from far more folks coming forward with their stories. So there may well be a capacity challenge for the commission going forward. I would encourage the government to engage with disabled people should such a challenge occur and to keep itself open to the idea of the appointment of additional commissioners to the process in order to bring additional expertise into the commission and ensure that it can be completed within a reasonable time frame. Having said that, we commend these amendments.
Despite moving the two amendments together, we will deal with the question separately. The question is that items 5, 24 and 25 in schedule 1 stand as printed.
The question is that the remaining amendments, numbers 2 to 5, 7 and 8, be agreed to.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments; report adopted.